This is a photograph of Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, performing in Paris on December 7, 2015. U2 was originally scheduled to perform in Paris in November, with the concert to be broadcast on HBO, but the band had to postpone due to the terrorist attacks in Paris, which included an attack on a rock concert featuring the California band The Eagles of Death Metal.
The rescheduled concert was broadcast on HBO the evening of December 7th and I watched it and recorded it for repeat viewing. Of course, the terrorist attacks upped the ante for the rescheduled show and created, at least for me, an expectation that it would be in some way more meaningful, especially given the band’s tendency to wade into political matters. So I was anticipating a great performance, but was also a bit cynical about the prospect of these wealthy rock stars getting paid a ton of money to play a show and thinking they could somehow convey something more than the pleasant buzz one might associate with popular musical performances.
The show started out quite serious, with a mix of new and old material and plenty of seemingly heartfelt pronouncements, such as we are all Parisians tonight. A standout was the U2 standard Sunday Bloody Sunday, which evokes the period of Irish troubles deriving from religious and political conflict between north and south. The band had the good sense to have the members line up at the front of the stage, with the drummer playing a shoulder-hung drum like in a marching band. The visual was like something out of Les Miserable; the revolutionaries pushed up against the barricades.
Then things became even more serious, with Bono explaining the genesis of the material on the band’s new album and drawing a loose connection between experiences the members had growing up during the troubles and current events. This part of the show ended with Bono imploring a higher power to bring comfort. At this point I was thinking that the show was doomed to linger in a tone of sadness and maudlin pomposity. But then a curious thing happened. A full on rock concert broke through the gloom.
The band’s guitarist, known as The Edge, launched into one of my favorite U2 songs, Until the End of the World. The opening lyrics are as follows:
Haven’t seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold just passing time
Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
You were talking about the end of the world
The implicit message was that despite all that had happened, it wasn’t (isn’t) the end of the world. During the guitar break, The Edge was performing behind a scrim, onto which Bono was projected larger than life, drinking water from a bottle and seeming to spray it out of his mouth onto The Edge. He says, “I’m sorry, Edge.” Then he says, “No, I’m not sorry.” A moment of humor that pierced the sanctimony. The song continued, until the final verse, which goes:
In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You…you said you’d wait
’til the end of the world
That line: I reached out for the one I tried to destroy. It was a transcendent moment; at once a battle call and a moment of tenderness.
I’ve been thinking for a couple days now whether this concert was important. It occurs to me that the terrorists thought it was important to kill a lot of people at another concert, and not because they were pissed off that the band made money off it. Maybe that’s because they realize that music does have meaning beyond the business side of things. On that note, U2 struck a blow for the good.